Finally reading The Smiler with the Knife, written by Nicholas Blake (who was really the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel) in 1939, immediately optioned by RKO and briefly developed by Orson Welles as his Hollywood debut, after THE HEART OF DARKNESS fell through and before CITIZEN KANE came through. It’s an item in Welles bios that always intrigued me.
Years ago I read Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which has no relation to the Amicus werewolf whodunnit (spoiler: the werewolf dunnit), but which was decently filmed by Chabrol as QUE LA BETE MEURE in 1969, and as LA BESTIA DEBE MORIR in 1952 by my man Roman Vinoly Barreto. The best bit of the book is a lengthy confession written by a man plotting the murder of the motorist who drunkenly killed his child. Then Blake’s posh private eye, Nigel Strangeways comes along and solves it, and the story devolves into a conventional country house kind of thriller, sitting uncomfortably with the raw emotion of the killer POV sequence. Chabrol certainly noticed that, and excised Strangeways from his movie altogether. I haven’t been able to see the Barreto, but he may have done the same, or maybe he just changed the names. Has Nigel Strangeways ever made it to the screen?
Poor Nigel is largely absent from The Smiler with the Knife too, with his wife Georgia, intrepid explorer, taking centre stage, going underground to unmask a fascist plot to take over Britain — the aristocratic leader of the secret society falls in love with her and she has to betray and outwit him. Events rapidly overtook the novel with the outbreak of war, but Welles planned to relocate the story to America, with the villain a Howard Hughes type. Ironic, since Hughes would end up owning RKO.
Welles also included, according to Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, a Hearst-like newspaper baron called W.N. Howells — now, presumably Welles had in mind for himself the big bad guy role, whose character has quite a bit in common with his eventual role in THE STRANGER (secret fascist hiding in plain view, in love with a woman who does not share his sinister sympathies), but “W.N. Howells” sounds so much like a misheard “Orson Welles” that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t already sizing up the part for himself.
Blake/Day-Lewis makes his main villain a romantic millionaire figure, toying humorously with the affections of countless women but falling dangerously in love with Georgia. He also ends up blinded in a fire she starts, anticipating Welles role as Rochester in JANE
AYRE EYRE. His styling as an “attractive brute” type may have been a stretch for Orson, but no doubt appealed, and one aspect of his description, his “oddly lumbering, bear-like gait,” fits Welles, no twinkletoes, to a tee.
Nobody seems to have produced a really detailed synopsis of Welles’ adaptation, and it’s not published or available to read online, but I recall (correctly, I hope) that Welles wanted Lucille Ball for the lead. This would have changed Georgia’s character considerably, and a good thing too — Blake/Day-Lewis has to work hard to even begin to make plausible her role as an undercover agent when she’s well-known as the daughter-in-law of a Scotland Yard commissioner whose job is to expose the conspirators. I imagine Welles making her much more of a regular working girl, perhaps anticipating her role in the delightful 1947 thriller LURED (Douglas Sirk), in which she plays a taxi dancer going undercover to snare a serial killer.
The latter part of the book is a very Hitchcockian chase thriller, in the 39 STEPS mode. Welles had some kind of inherent antipathy to Hitchcock, co-existing with an attraction to often similar material (but what attracted him about it was obviously quite different). It would have been fascinating to see what he’d make of this.
Oh well, we’ll just have to make do with CITIZEN KANE.